Harvard’s Single-Gender Clubs To Be Penalized

Harvard’s Widener Library

Harvard officials announced Tuesday, December 5 that the controversial policy to keep members of single-sex clubs from taking on leadership positions in any of the school’s students clubs or sports teams will remain.

The move was first introduced in May 2016, but was put to the vote again following some disapproval from faculty members. On Tuesday, President Drew Faust and Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William Lee announced that the rule was here to stay, and would take effect with the Class of 2021, at a faculty meeting. The notice was also sent to the Harvard community.

An issued statement to the school said: “We appreciate the intense engagement of the faculty on an issue that will shape the non-academic educational experience of current and future students… The final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogenous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent. Our student body today is significantly different.”

Other than not being allowed to become student leaders, members of these unrecognized single-gender social organizations (USGSOs), also cannot be recommended for elite academic scholarships, including the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and Marshall Scholarship. Former Rhodes scholars include former Supreme Court Justice David Souter and Franklin Raines, former Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae.


Because the groups are not recognized by the university, administrators do not know which students belong to final clubs and will rely on self-reported information. The statement states that students who choose to join one of the USGSOs will remain in good standing, and that “the policy does not discipline or punish the students,” but instead that “students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity.” However, those opposed say the school is taking inappropriate punitive action.

“Punishing a student for having joined an unrecognized single-sex group by ruling out his or her access, on that account, to overseas fellowships and leadership positions on campus is to confuse two distinct areas of college life by making access to intellectual progress or leadership consequent on private behavior,” said the A. Kingsley Porter Professor at Harvard University Helen Vendler, who expressed strong opposition to the policy. But in a time of tension as the school is investigated by the Justice Department for its race-based admissions policy and process, the statement from Faust reminds the Harvard community that the retention of the policy to penalize students in USGSOs is a move to create greater equity in terms of access to curricular and extracurricular activities.

“We self-consciously seek to admit a class that is diverse on many dimensions, including on gender, race, and socioeconomic status,” Faust said in the notice. “Indeed, we are in the midst of a lawsuit, as well as an investigation by the United States government, in which we are vigorously defending these bedrock commitments.”


Most of the all-male “Final clubs” at Harvard date back to the late 19th century, where students joined different clubs depending on their class year. The freshmen joined freshmen clubs before moving into a “waiting club” as sophomores to wait to enter the “final club” as upperclassmen. It was named as the final club a student could join before leaving the institute. All-female final clubs were established later in the school’s history. The Bee, the first final club to accept only women, wasn’t created until 1991. That same year, then Dean of Students at the time, Archie C. Epps III, said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson that the university did not recognize the Bee.

“Fraternities are illegal at Harvard,” Epps said at the time. “We have very great doubts about the efficacy of fraternities because many have the reputation for the abuse of alcohol and for interference with academic work.”

Today, there are about a dozen final clubs at Harvard that undergraduate students mostly join in their sophomore years to become part of an elite and exclusive social and party scene. The Wall Street Journal reports that less than 10% of students join these clubs that are technically not affiliated with Harvard.

In 1985, Harvard threatened to sever ties with the all-male final clubs if they didn’t start accepting women. They refused to break their 200-year tradition and The New York Times reported that they chose to give up their low-cost school phone, heating systems, and access to alumni mailing lists.

”These clubs must come to terms with the changing role of women in society and learn to associate with them in college as associates and colleagues, and not merely as romantic and sexual partners,” Epps said in October 1984L.


The movement against final clubs gained momentum in 2014 as the U.S. Department of Education investigated and later found Harvard Law School violating Title IX regulations.

“I am very pleased to bring to close one of our longest-running sexual violence investigations, and I congratulate Harvard Law School for now committing to comply with Title IX and immediately implement steps to provide a safe learning environment for its students,” Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a Department of Education-issued press release. She credited the resolution to the leadership of Faust and Law School Dean Martha Minow, though the Title IX investigation against Harvard College continued, threatening their federal funding.

In 2016, the school hired its first-ever Title IX officer to help ensure compliance with the law, and in May then Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana announced that member of the school’s six all-male clubs would no longer be allowed to lead clubs or teams, or be recommended for fellowships. By then, some all-male final clubs like Spee, had already chosen to go co-ed, but The New York Post reported that students felt the transition process was sexually charged as men voted on the women who were allowed to join. “The only girls who got in were the ones who had hooked up with male members and stayed the latest and partied the hardest,” said one female undergrad.

While the policy is to remain in effect for now, Harvard Corporation has also voted to have it reviewed after five years, with periodic, interim reports submitted to the faculty and perhaps appease those among them who don’t agree with the policy.

“Over the past two academic years, this body has had a robust discussion about how the University should respond to the many issues presented by USGSOs, including the final clubs, sororities, and fraternities,” it says in the statement. “It is now time to decide the path forward — a way that builds on what we have learned … that permits students in the Class of 2021 to make fully informed decisions about whether to participate in a USGSO.”


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